Friday, April 01, 2005

The Dark Side of Libertarianism

So far I've defended both Libertarians from Republicans and Republicans from Libertarians. Now I have some complaints about the Libertarian Party and some of its core teachings.

At its heart, Libertarianism is based on the concept that open markets and free competition provides the best way of organizing society. Government exists to keep those markets open by forcing laws and contracts and providing basic security. Beyond that there is not much need for government involvement. In many areas this can be proven by the results of market-based and government-based efforts. Libertarians go further than this and apply their philosophy to everything. That's where it gets questionable.

The biggest point here is national defense and how it should be handled. Libertarians call for a isolationist policy. They would close all overseas bases and drastically cut back on the size of the military. They are also uncomfortable with nuclear weapons so they would pursue a small, high-tech fighting force with enough nuclear weaponry to discourage invasion. We would protect our own borders and possibly those of Canada and Mexico but otherwise we would disengage from the rest of the world, at least as far as our military goes.

The theory is that our military presence in the Persian Gulf is what precipitated 9-11. Had we withdrawn our forces in 1998, when the CATO Institute suggested, then all would have been forgiven.

There are two problems here. The first is that the presence of American military is only one of three bones of contention. A second one is American political power. I'm not sure how much of this the Libertarians are willing to give up since much of it is devoted to keeping markets open and eliminating trade barriers. If the US were to retire from the political arena we would rapidly see EU-style big government become world policy.

The third factor is the dominance of American companies and culture. The world watches our movies and TV shows and listens to our music. They drink our soft drinks and try to dress like us. This drives a lot of people overseas nuts and it is what Libertarians are cheering for.

The military gives the government credibility in dealing with world politics which keeps markets open. Recalling the military would close markets and the terrorists would hate us anyway.

That's the cold, hard, practical problem with isolationism. There are other issues. One is the moral one. An isolationist policy means turning our backs on world events, no matter how many people die.

War is bad and when the US is at war we do things that we like to think are beneath us. It is not surprising that we don't like to get involved but, far too often, if we don't get involved then no one does. That's when millions die.

Finally, there is the issue of world stability. As things currently stand, no one can take over the world. None of the big powers have enough military strength to do more than threaten a neighbor.

That's because of the US military power. While we might have trouble occupying it, we are strong enough to overthrow nearly anyone in the world. They know it but they also know that we are not likely to do it. Moreover, we tend to throw other countries out if they invade someone (yes, Afghanistan and Iraq are exceptions to this but Afghanistan was sheltering bin Laden and we were in continuous hostilities with Iraq since they invaded Kuwait.)

If the US withdrew, other countries would start building up their military again and the world would be less safe.

At some level the Libertarians know all of this. They just ignore it. Because the Libertarians are a fringe party, they don't have to advance real policies. They can give out policies that are ideologically pure, knowing that they will never have to deal with the consequences.

President Reagan and, presumably, President Bush (43) have strong Libertarian leanings but they also had to deal with the real world. As a result, they disappointed a lot of Libertarians.

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